Home / Laurence Olivier Centenary: The Greatest Actor of the 20th Century?

Laurence Olivier Centenary: The Greatest Actor of the 20th Century?

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Who was/is the world’s greatest actor? It’s the kind of question that doesn’t really have an answer. One thing is for sure though, any such discussion would definitely include two names – Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. The two were like chalk and cheese; one a classically trained Shakespearian actor the other an advocate of the “method” school.

Champions of both stars could doubtless give valid reasons why one or the other was the superior thespian, but there is one yardstick by which Olivier wins hands down – longevity. While Brando grew bored with both the industry and the parts he was given to play, Olivier just seemed to get better the older he got, receiving the last of his Oscar nominations while in his seventies.

Olivier started as a stage actor and had a tendency early on in his career to look down on film acting. He had success on stage with Romeo and Juliet alongside John Giulgud in 1935, although the two did not get on. His stage career in the '30s was a mixed bag, winning acclaim for Henry V, while his Hamlet earned him less flattering reviews.

While he may have had no love for screen acting, he was still happy to take the work (and the money), making his debut in 1930’s The Temporary Widow. His first major screen performance was as Heathcliff in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939) for which he received an Oscar nomination. The film marked a change in Olivier’s acting style as Wyler instructed the actor in the differences between theatre acting and screen acting, namely that you didn’t need to shout in order to be heard by the back row in a movie. The following year he scored another hit with Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The film earned him his second Oscar nomination.

In 1944 he fully embarrassed the film world by adapting Shakespeare’s Henry V for the screen. The film was a hit with both audiences and critics and Olivier received a special Honorary Award at the Oscars for his work as actor, producer, and director, although he felt this was merely a “fob-off” as the academy wouldn’t give all the major awards to a foreigner.

Four years later he made the second of his Shakespeare adaptations with the equally well-received Hamlet, this time picking up the Best Actor and Best Picture Award (he missed out on Best Director which went to John Huston for Treasure of the Sierra Madre). His performance in Richard III (1955) is widely considered to be one of his best and received widespread critical acclaim but the film was a commercial failure.

His next film was another stage adaptation, though a decidedly more modern one and starred an actress who would definitely have been out of place in one of his Shakespeare pictures. Marilyn Monroe was the female lead in The Prince and the Showgirl and received one of the films five BAFTA nomination as Best Foreign Actress although it was snubbed by the Oscars.

Two of his most famous performances came in 1960 and they couldn’t have been more different. The Entertainer was the story of Archie Rice, a has-been vaudeville performer, and the play it was adapted from was written specifically for Olivier by John Osborne. It was a part he felt great affinity for, later remarking, "I am Archie Rice. I am not Hamlet." Spartacus was his other film from 1960 and as Marcus Licinius Crassus he was the perfect remedy to Kirk Douglas’ overdose of testosterone.

Othello brought further plaudits (and another Oscar nomination) making the effort Olivier underwent to get in shape for the part worthwhile. A further three nominations followed in the '70s – Sleuth (1972), Marathon Man (1976), and The Boys from Brazil (1978).

He continued acting into his eighties, playing King Lear on TV (1983) and making a cameo appearance in the Anthony Hopkins/Mel Gibson film The Bounty (1984). He died on 11 July, 1989.

This article has only covered Olivier’s film work and even then only some of the high points. He continued to work on the stage into the '70s as well as lending his vocal talents to the famous Thames TV documentary series The World at War (1974). He was married three times – to Jill Esmond (1930-1940), Vivien Leigh (1940-1960), and Joan Plowright (1961-1989).

May 22 marks the centenary of Olivier's birth and over the coming week I’ll be reviewing some of my favourite films starring the great man, including Marathon Man and Sleuth.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • Carole Heath Wallington Surrey

    I think that Olivier was a great actor most likely the greatest of the 20th century, he really brought Shakespeare to the big screen with his brillianr film of Henry V, and then he did Hamlet, Richard 111. I was introduced to Shakespeare through his film of Richard 111 in the early 60’s when I went to a cinema in the west- end of London it was doing a season of his Shakespeare films. I became an instant fan of Laurence Olivier and have been ever since. His career covered so much as an actor and producer and director, and his stage work especially in the classics was very various.
    I think Olivier had it all a great actor, a lovely speaking voice who can forget his verse speaking in Henry V (ONCE MORE INTO THE BREACH DEAR FRIENDS ONCE MORE) OR THE ST CRISPINS DAY SPEECH, and Olivier could act. The tranformations he could do as an actor I thought was brilliant. When he died I was very sad as I thought it was the passing of an era regarding great acting.

  • May Poling

    Laurence Olivier is and always will be truely the greatest and most convincing actor the world will ever see. He was a genius and no other actor will ever compare.Others actors are so amateurish compared to Olivier.You remember every movie he acted in .He literally became the character he portrayed in every movie he starred in. he had it all, genius actor beautiful voice and he was so handsome.